As a seventh grader, Lexi Schatz was one of the top small-school runners in Indiana, finishing seventh in her division at the middle school cross country meet in Carmel.
Three years later, the Hebron sophomore was back at a state finals venue, this time at the Lavern Gibson Championship Course in Terre Haute, as a spectator and fan.
Sporting a green hoodie for Porter County Conference rival Morgan Township, Schatz was on hand Saturday to cheer on her boyfriend, Cherokees junior Alec Kostelnik, who placed 10th.
"It's inspiring," Schatz said. "I see how good he does, I want to be like him. It was a good experience, hopefully for next year."
As with many distance runners, Schatz's story is one of dealing with injuries. After her success in seventh grade -- when she broke all the Hebron records and destroyed the field in her grade at the Rensselaer Invitational -- she developed knee problems that forced her to undergo double lateral release surgery. The arthroscopic procedure is done to loosen tight tissue around the knee cap.
"She's definitely a tough girl," Kostelnik said after the race. "If I had knee surgery, I don't think I would've been able to come back."
The operations had to be done separately because Schatz had to stay off the knee. After a period of time in a wheelchair, then on crutches, she went through the same pain-staking process on the other knee, wondering all the while how she'd be when the whole ordeal was done.
"A lot of doubt," Schatz said. "But I've always had God on my side. I have pretty strong faith. I've really changed my view since then. It made me even stronger. I've worked harder."
Schatz did the subsequent rehab and returned to running as a freshman. She struggled through a tough season, experiencing discomfort from tendinitis in both knees.
"We assumed (before the injury) that she'd come in as a freshman and turn in 19s," Hebron coach Mike DeFries said.
Slowly but surely, Schatz is working her way back. She finished 12th in the Rensselaer Sectional, helping the Hawks to the title.
"At the end of the season, I kept telling her how awesome it was having the old Lexi back," DeFries said. "It took two solid years of work, doing just a little at a time. She's worked hard, and she's one of our top runners again."
With a strong group of young runners back next year and the arrival of Schatz's sister Payton, who bested Lexi's finish at the middle school state meet by three spots, the future's bright for Hebron.
"It's been a long journey," Schatz said.
Which will make the destination that much more special when Schatz gets there.
When, not if.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.